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Ghrelin/obestatin prepropeptide
Available structures
PDB Ortholog search: PDBe, RCSB
Symbols GHRL ; MTLRP
External IDs OMIM605353 MGI1930008 HomoloGene9487 GeneCards: GHRL Gene
Species Human Mouse
Entrez 51738 58991
Ensembl ENSG00000157017 ENSMUSG00000064177
UniProt Q9UBU3 Q9EQX0
RefSeq (mRNA) NM_001134941 NM_001286404
RefSeq (protein) NP_001128413 NP_001273333
Location (UCSC) Chr 3:
10.33 – 10.33 Mb
Chr 6:
113.72 – 113.72 Mb
PubMed search [1] [2]

Ghrelin (pr. GREL-in), the "hunger hormone", is a peptide produced by ghrelin cells in the gastrointestinal tract[1][2] which functions as a neuropeptide in the central nervous system.[3] Beyond regulating hunger, ghrelin also plays a significant role in regulating the distribution and rate of use of energy.[4]

When the stomach is empty, ghrelin is secreted. When the stomach is stretched, secretion stops. It acts on hypothalamic brain cells both to increase hunger, and to increase gastric acid secretion and gastrointestinal motility to prepare the body for food intake.[5]

The receptor for ghrelin is found on the same cells in the brain as the receptor for leptin, the satiety hormone that has opposite effects from ghrelin.[6] Ghrelin also plays an important role in regulating reward perception in dopamine neurons that link the ventral tegmental area to the nucleus accumbens[7] (a site that plays a role in processing sexual desire, reward, and reinforcement, and in developing addictions) through its colocalized receptors and interaction with dopamine and acetylcholine.[3][8] Ghrelin is encoded by the GHRL gene and is presumably produced from the cleavage of the prepropeptide ghrelin/obestatin. Full-length preproghrelin is homologous to promotilin and both are members of the motilin family.

History and name[edit]

Ghrelin was discovered after the ghrelin receptor (called growth hormone secretagogue type 1A receptor or GHSR) was discovered in 1996[9] and was reported in 1999.[10] The hormone name is based on its role as a growth hormone-releasing peptide, with reference to the Proto-Indo-European root ghre, meaning to grow.[11] (Growth Hormone Release-Inducing = Ghrelin)

Gene, transcription products, and structure[edit]

Preproghrelin (green and blue) and ghrelin (green).

The GHRL gene produces mRNA which has four exons. Five products arise: the first is the 117-amino acid preproghrelin. (It is homologous to promotilin; both are members of the motilin family). It is cleaved to produce proghrelin which is cleaved to produce a 28-amino acid ghrelin (unacylated) and C-ghrelin(acylated). Obestatin is presumed to be cleaved from C-ghrelin.[12]

Ghrelin only becomes active when caprylic (octanoic) acid is linked posttranslationally to serine at the 3-position by the enzyme ghrelin O-acyltransferase (GOAT). It is located on the cell membrane of ghrelin cells in the stomach and pancreas.[12] The non-octanoylated form is desacyl ghrelin. It does not activate the GHSR receptor but does have other effects: cardiac,[13] anti-ghrelin,[14] appetite stimulation,[15] and inhibition of hepatic glucose output[16] Side-chains other than octanoyl have also been observed: these can also trigger the ghrelin receptor.[17] In particular, decanoyl ghrelin has been found to constitute a significant portion of circulating ghrelin in mice, but as of 2011 its presence in humans has not been established.[18]

Ghrelin cells[edit]

Alternate names[edit]

The ghrelin cell is also known as an A-like cell (pancreas), X-cell (for unknown function), X/A-like cell (rats), Epsilon cell (pancreas), P/D sub 1 cell (humans) and Gr cell (abbreviation for ghrelin cell).[19]


Ghrelin cells are found mainly in the stomach [20] and duodenum, but also in the jejunum, lungs, pancreatic islets,[21] gonads, adrenal cortex, placenta, and kidney.


Ghrelin cells are found in oxyntic glands (20% of cells),[22] pyloric glands, and small intestine. They are ovoid cells with granules.[23] They have gastrin receptors.[24] They produce nesfatin-1, another food intake limiting hormone in addition to ghrelin.[25] Ghrelin cells are not terminally differentiated in the pancreas: they are progenitor cells that can give rise to A-cells, PP cells and Beta-cells there.[26]

Function and mechanism of action[edit]

Ghrelin is a participant in regulating the complex process of energy homeostasis which adjusts both energy input - by adjusting hunger signals - and energy output - by adjusting the proportion of energy going to ATP production, fat storage, glycogen storage, and short-term heat loss (all energy input is ultimately dissipated as heat). The net result of these processes is reflected in body weight, and is under continuous monitoring and adjustment based on metabolic signals and needs. At any given moment in time, it may be in equilibrium or disequilibrium. Gastric-brain communication is an essential part of energy homeostasis, and several communication pathways are probable, including the gastric intracellular mTOR/S6K1 pathway mediating the interaction among ghrelin, nesfatin and endocannabinoid gastric systems,[27] and both afferent and efferent vagal signals.

Ghrelin and synthetic ghrelin mimetics (the growth hormone secretagogues) increase appetite and fat mass[28][29] by triggering receptors in the arcuate nucleus[30][31] that include the orexigenic neuropeptide Y (NPY) neurons.[32] Ghrelin-responsiveness of these neurons is both leptin- and insulin-sensitive.[33] Ghrelin reduces the mechanosensitivity of gastric vagal afferents, so they are less sensitive to gastric distension.[34]

In addition to its function in energy homeostasis, ghrelin also activates the mesolimbic cholinergic–dopaminergic reward link, a circuit that communicates the hedonic and reinforcing aspects of natural rewards, such as food and addictive drugs such as ethanol.[33][35][36] Ghrelin receptors are located on neurons in this circuit.[7] Hypothalamic ghrelin signalling is required for reward from alcohol[37] and palatable/rewarding foods.[38][39]

Ghrelin also improves endothelial function and inhibits proatherogenic changes in cell cultures. It activates the endothelial isoform of nitric oxide synthase in a pathway that depends on various kinases including Akt.[40]

Ghrelin has been linked to inducing appetite and feeding behaviors. Circulating ghrelin levels are the highest right before a meal and the lowest right after.[41] Injections of ghrelin in both humans and rats have been shown to increase food intake in a dose-dependent manner.[42] So the more ghrelin that is injected the more food that is consumed. However, ghrelin does not increase meal size, only meal number.[43] Ghrelin injections also increase an animal's motivation to seek out food, behaviors including increased sniffing, foraging for food, and hoarding food. Body weight is regulated through energy balance, the amount of energy taken in versus the amount of energy expended over an extended period of time. Studies have shown that ghrelin levels are negatively correlated with weight. This data suggests that ghrelin functions as an adiposity signal, a messenger between the body's energy stores and the brain.[5] When a person loses weight their ghrelin levels increase, which causes increased food consumption and weight gain. On the other hand, when a person gains weight, ghrelin levels drop, leading to a decrease in food consumption and weight loss. This suggests that ghrelin acts as a body weight regulator, continuously keeping one's body weight and energy stores in check.

Blood levels[edit]

Blood levels are in the pmol/l range. Both active and total ghrelin can be measured.[44] Circulating ghrelin concentrations rise before eating and fall afterward, more strongly in response to protein and carbohydrate than to lipids.[18]

The ghrelin receptor[edit]

The ghrelin receptor GHSR1a (a splice-variant of the growth hormone secretagogue receptor) is involved in mediating a wide variety of biological effects of ghrelin, including: stimulation of growth hormone release, increase in hunger, modulation of glucose and lipid metabolism, regulation of gastrointestinal motility and secretion, protection of neuronal and cardiovascular cells, and regulation of immune function.[45] They are present in high density in the hypothalamus and pituitary, on the vagus nerve (on both afferent cell bodies and afferent nerve endings) and throughout the gastrointestinal tract.[12][34]

Sites of action[edit]

Gastrointestinal tract[edit]

Ghrelin promotes intestinal cell proliferation and inhibits apoptosis during inflammatory states and oxidative stress.[46][47] It also suppresses pro-inflammatory mechanisms and augments anti-inflammatory mechanisms, thus creating a possibility of its therapeutic use in various gastrointestinal inflammatory conditions, including colitis, ischemia reperfusion injury, and sepsis.[48][49] Animal models of colitis, ischemia reperfusion, and sepsis-related gut dysfunction have been shown to benefit from therapeutic doses of ghrelin.[48][49] It has also been shown to have regenerative capacity and is beneficial in mucosal injury to the stomach.[50]

Ghrelin promotes gastrointestinal and pancreatic malignancy.[51][52][53]


Ghrelin acts on its receptor in the pancreas to inhibit glucose-stimulated insulin secretion.[54]

Glucose metabolism[edit]

The entire ghrelin system (dAG, AG, GHSR and GOAT) has a gluco-regulatory action.[54]

Nervous System[edit]

Learning and memory[edit]

The hippocampus plays a significant role in neurotrophy: the cognitive adaptation to changing environments and the process of learning[55][56] and it is a potent stimulator of growth hormone.[10] Animal models indicate that ghrelin may enter the hippocampus from the bloodstream, altering nerve-cell connections, and so altering learning and memory. It is suggested that learning may be best during the day and when the stomach is empty, since ghrelin levels are higher at these times. A similar effect on human memory performance is possible.[55] In rodents, X/A-like cells produce ghrelin.[57]


Ghrelin knock-out mice (who never express ghrelin) have increased anxiety in response to a variety of stressors, such as acute restraint stress and social stress in experimental settings.[58] In normal mice, ghrelin can stimulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, from the anterior pituitary.[58]

Ghrelin has been shown to have implications for depression prevention. Antidepressant-like attributes were demonstrated when mice with high levels of ghrelin and mice with the ghrelin gene knocked out underwent social defeat stress and then were placed in the forced swim tank. Mice with elevated ghrelin swam more than ghrelin deficient mice.[59] These ghrelin-deficient mice exhibited more social avoidance as well. These mice did not exhibit depression-like behaviors when injected with a commonly prescribed antidepressant, suggesting that ghrelin acts as a short-term natural adaptation against depression.

Sleep duration[edit]

Short sleep duration is associated with high levels of ghrelin and obesity. An inverse relationship between the hours of sleep and blood plasma concentrations of ghrelin exists; as the hours of sleep increase, ghrelin levels trend lower and obesity is less likely.[60]

Stress-induced fear[edit]

Prior stress exposure heightens fear learning during Pavlovian fear conditioning. Stress-related increases in ghrelin circulation were shown to be necessary and sufficient for stress to increase fear learning. Ghrelin was found to be upregulated by stress even in the absence of adrenal hormones. Blocking the ghrelin receptor during stress abolished stress-related enhancement of fear memory without blunting other markers of stress. These results suggest that ghrelin is a novel branch of the stress response.[61] Human studies are needed to translate the use of anti-ghrelin treatments to prevent stress-induced psychiatric disorders.

Substantia nigra function[edit]

Ghrelin, through its receptor increases the concentration of dopamine in the substantia nigra.[62]

Reproductive system[edit]

Ghrelin has inhibitory effects on gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) secretion. It may cause decreased fertility.[63]

Fetus and neonate[edit]

  • Ghrelin is produced early by the fetal lung and promotes lung growth.[64]
  • Cord blood levels of active and total ghrelin show a correlation between ghrelin levels and birth weight.[44]

Immune system[edit]

Ghrelin gene products have several actions on acute and chronic inflammation and autoimmunity, with promising therapeutic applications.[65]

Anorexia and obesity[edit]

  • Ghrelin levels in the plasma of obese individuals are lower than those in leaner individuals,[66] suggesting that ghrelin does not contribute to obesity, except in the cases of Prader-Willi syndrome-induced obesity, where high ghrelin levels are correlated with increased food intake.[67][68]
  • Those with anorexia nervosa have high plasma levels of ghrelin[69] compared to both the constitutionally thin and normal-weight controls.[70]
  • Intravenous administration of ghrelin to anorexia nervosa patients increased food intake by 12–36% over the trial period.[71]
  • The level of ghrelin increases during the time of day from midnight to dawn in thinner people, which suggests there is a flaw in the circadian rhythm of obese individuals.[72]
  • Ghrelin levels reflect release in a circadian rhythm which can be interrupted by exposure to light at night.[73]
  • Short sleep duration may also lead to obesity, through an increase of appetite via hormonal changes.[74]
  • Lack of sleep increases ghrelin, and decreases leptin, both effects producing increased hunger and obesity.
  • Ghrelin levels are high in patients with cancer-induced cachexia.[75]

Disease management[edit]

Gastric bypass surgery[edit]

Gastric bypass surgery not only reduces the gut's capacity for food but also dramatically lowers ghrelin levels compared to both lean controls and those that lost weight through dieting alone.[66] However, studies are conflicting as to whether or not ghrelin levels return to close to normal with gastric bypass patients in the long term after weight loss has stabilized.[76] Bariatric surgeries involving vertical sleeve gastrectomy reduce plasma ghrelin levels by about 60% in the long term.[77]

Medical management of obesity[edit]

Ghrelin is not FDA approved for any indication. In rodents and pigs, an anti-obesity vaccine has been developed. It blocks the ghrelin receptor.[78][79]

Future clinical uses[edit]


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